International Society for Science & Religion - Library Project

Religion and Science: Historical and Contemporary Issues

by Ian G. Barbour

Introductory Essay by John Polkinghorne

Ian Barbour has been a key figure in the development of the vigorous modern dialogue between science and religion, dating from the 1960s onwards. His book presents a wide-ranging survey of relevant issues, and it is written in a style that combines clarity with scholarly care in a fair-minded endeavour to make clear his own conclusions while doing justice to points of view other than his own. Science and Religion is a mature work that gives the reader a very good overall understanding of Barbour’s thinking. It is undoubtedly a book that should be read by anyone with a serious concern for issues in science and religion.

Barbour’s personal approach has a number of features that have consistently characterised his thinking throughout his long career. The most notable is his positive attitude to the insights of the process thought of Alfred North Whitehead and Charles Hartshorne. Process metaphysics treats individual events (‘actual occasions’) as its fundamental category. It attributes a pan-experiential aspect to these events, so that God acts upon them by the influence of a divine ‘lure’ which seeks to draw the event in a particular desired direction, although the determination of the eventual outcome lies with the event itself. This approach is open to philosophical criticism as giving too atomised an account of process, and to theological criticism as giving too reduced an account of divine power. Barbour himself speaks of a need for some degree of revision in process thinking, particularly in relation to the emergence of novel properties in complex systems. The divine engagement implied in each event inclines Barbour to take a panentheistic view of God’s relation to creation, so that the world is in a sense a part of God, although God exceeds the world.

While Barbour’s theology is unmistakably Christian, it is also characterised by a significant liberal modification of a number of traditionally orthodox ideas. The concept of Spirit is very important to him and his Christology is essentially a spirit-Christology which sees Christ as an exceptionally divinely inspired person, exemplifying a new possibility for human relationship with God, rather than the God-man of traditional incarnational theology. Barbour writes movingly about the death of Christ as a supreme example of self-giving love, but he has very little indeed to say about the Resurrection.

The scope of this book is very wide. The opening chapters give valuable historical accounts of the interaction of science and religion in the modern period, including helpful discussions of Galileo and Charles Darwin. A very influential aspect of Barbour’s thinking has been a classification he formulated of four different types of possible interaction between science and religion: conflict; independence; dialogue; integration. He has also been a leading exponent of the concept of critical realism as a way of understanding the nature of the attainment of truthful understanding in both science and religion. These matters are clearly discussed in the book. There are also excellent accounts of the specific contributions offered to the dialogue by the scientific disciplines of physics, cosmology and evolutionary biology. This is unquestionably a book that is an essential part of any serious library concerned with issues of science and religion.